This is the second part of what will now be a three part treatment of conservation and foraging. On this page I have adapted the section on conservation from my River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook. The third part will deal with the fungi.
People can become very disquieted over the matter of conservation and foraging. Surely, they argue, we should not be taking things from the wild for our own purposes; surely nature has been injured by us enough without this further imposition. This is not an argument with which I have a great deal of sympathy. It is, of course, perfectly possible to forage in a manner that is damaging to the natural world, but it is not actually all that easy.
Many of our native species are under threat but it is not from the forager. Invasive species take a toll of habitats by usurping ecological niches; Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan balsam being among the worst hedgerow offenders here. But most damage is done by human-induced loss of habitat. The ploughing of meadow and downland, uprooting of hedges, felling of mature woodlands, urbanisation, golf courses, industrial development or even something as simple as walking on a pebble beach (one of the problems faced by sea kale) all have a major effect on biodiversity. Habitat is everything – if the correct habitat exists, so will the species that thrive in it, foraged or not.
The commercial collection of plants has the potential to cause problems because of its likely scale, but there are few records of it becoming a problem. The reason for this is not hard to see. Some shellfish and some fungi are well worth the effort of gathering for reward, but it is much harder to make a living from wild plants – a kilogram of Wood Sorrel may command a high price but it will take several hours to collect.
But what if everybody picked wild plants? There are two reposts to this. First of all, not everybody will. I recall watching a popular television programme where one of my favourite edible plants – Sea Beet – was enthusiastically recommended to the viewers. I worried that families would set off with baskets, boxes and large appetites on weekend trips to collect every last plant. The following season, in the half-dozen highly accessible places where I pick it myself, I could find not the slightest evidence that anyone had picked a single leaf. If anything. Secondly, for most plants, it would make very little difference if everybody did pick them. Dandelions, Sorrel, Blackberries, Elderflowers, Sloes, Nettles, Crab Apples, Fat Hen, Hawthorn, Sweet Cicely, Sweet Chestnut, Wild Garlic, Wood Sorrel and more are so hugely abundant that it would effectively be beyond our abilities to damage them by collecting.
Remember also that when one is picking fruits the plants themselves are completely unaffected. Fruit are created, of course, in order that the plant may reproduce and not so that we might feed ourselves; it could, therefore, be argued that picking fruit might damage the long-term reproductive success of a species. This is clear nonsense because of the vast numbers of fruit (or seed) that a plant produces in its lifetime, out of which only one or two need to develop into new, mature plants. For example how many Crab Apples would you have to gather before populations of Crab Apple trees started to decline? Well, nearly all of them, and for several decades.
There is also the plea that we should always leave some wild fruit to feed the birds. Now I like birds as much as the next man (woodcock and teal are particular favourites) and I think that if they can get to the berries before I do then jolly good luck to them.
I suspect that at least some of the concerns expressed by individuals and organisations over foraging and wildlife is not about conservation but protecting their patch – good, old-fashioned territoriality. Certainly one or two of the nature wardens with whom I have ‘had words’ over the years, even when I was carrying no more than a camera and tripod, seemed more interested in ‘seeing me off’ than in seriously protecting the species on their site. Fortunately, organisations such as Plantlife and the National Trust are now, with publications and courses, actively encouraging the idea of careful foraging as a way of helping people feel that the natural world actually has something to do with them.
One sin occasionally committed by the conservation minded is that of ‘environmental colonialism’ – refusing to buy or gather local wild food while cheerfully buying the imported article. A typical example of this is when a restaurant is banned, or at least discouraged, from using locally collected ceps and chanterelle on conservation grounds with no concern expressed about their being imported from who knows where. I once observed the same mindset at play in a national nature reserve where all the gates where made from tropical hardwoods.
When one considers the ethics of a particular position, it must be weighed against those of its alternative – one cannot assume that cultivated food has no negative environmental impact. Whatever food you eat, it must have come from somewhere and eating from the wild is, in principle at least, more virtuous than eating cultivated food. There are a handful of food crops which may be considered positive or at least neutral in their environmental effects – hill-grazed sheep, oysters and seaweeds being the only three I can easily bring to mind – but most are inevitably negative. Any crop – rice, wheat, potatoes, vines, olives, apples – require that whatever wild organisms were there originally must be destroyed and then kept at bay, and we must remember that most husbanded animals are fed on crops of some sort or another.
A truly committed environmentalist who also eschewed foraging (and hunting) would likely starve to death. Foraging, by contrast, is a thoroughly virtuous exercise. If one forages from the wild, it is still wild afterwards and far from being a dangerous aberration, foraging (and hunting) are the only natural means by which we can obtain sustenance – all others being a matter of artifice. My concern is not that we forage too much, but too little. It is admittedly a human-centred view, but there are vast quantities of wild food in our hedgerows, woods and fields and along our seashore and most of it goes to waste. More food taken from the wild would, in theory at least, mean that some land could be released from agriculture and reserved for wildlife.
Here is a brief, and rather obvious, guide on how to get it right:
1. Take care not to damage habitats by trampling all over them.
2. Most forageable plants book are very common but a few are not and should be picked with extreme care and only occasionally.
3. Obey the laws that cover conservation.
4. Although it hardly applies to such things as Blackberries and Haws, in general it is wise to pick a little here and a little there of whatever you are collecting. A woodland floor stripped of its Wood Sorrel, for example, is a forlorn sight.
John Wright: 11th Feb 2015 21:32:00
Come and book on one of my own forays. Other forays will be posted elsewhere with links to the organisation running the day.
I knew something was rumbling in the undergrowth and in late July 2015, a journalist from the Bournemouth local paper asked me to respond to some surprising words delivered by my friend, Sarah Cadbury, to the Verderers of the New Forest. I duly responded. A day or two later, a journalist from the Times asked if I would write a 300 word rebuttal. On Saturday 25th I did a Google search on the story and found myself in the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. And not in a good way. The Verders were bystanders in this but I thought I owed them a letter. Here it is. The Verderer’s Court of the New Forest I am writing both to the Court and to the Forestry Commission on the subject of wild mushroom hunting in the Forest. It is my intention to copy this letter to othe...
This is the second part of what will now be a three part treatment of conservation and foraging. On this page I have adapted the section on conservation from my River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook. The third part will deal with the fungi. People can become very disquieted over the matter of conservation and foraging. Surely, they argue, we should not be taking things from the wild for our own purposes; surely nature has been injured by us enough without this further imposition. This is not an argument with which I have a great deal of sympathy. It is, of course, perfectly possible to forage in a manner that is damaging to the natural world, but it is not actually all that easy. Many of our native species are under threat but it is not from the forager. Invasive species take a toll of habit...
Latin names - frequently unpronounceable, all too often wrong and always a tiny puzzle to unravel - have been annoying the layman since they first became formalised as scientific terms in the eighteenth century. Why on earth has the entirely land-loving Eastern Mole been named Scalopus aquaticus, or the Oxford Ragwort been called Senecio squalid...
In the first of an exciting new River Cottage Handbook series, mycologist John Wright explains the ins and outs of collecting, including relevant UK laws, conservation notes, practical tips and identification techniques. He takes us through the 72 species we are most likely to come across during forays in Britain’s forests and clearings: ...
In the fifth of the River Cottage Handbook series, John Wright reveals the rich pickings to be had on the seashore – and the team at River Cottage explain how to cook them to perfection. For the forager, the seashore holds surprising culinary potential. In this authoritative, witty book John Wright takes us on a trip to the seaside. But be...
Hedgerows, moors, meadows and woods – these hold a veritable feast for the forager. In this hugely informative and witty handbook, John Wright reveals how to spot the free and delicious ingredients to be found in the British countryside, and then how to prepare and cook them. First John touches on the basics for the hedgerow forager, with ...
What could possibly beat a cool pint of beer down the pub or a lazy glass of wine at your favourite bar? The answer is: home-brewed beer or your very own brand of wine. With this, the twelfth in the River Cottage Handbook series, the inimitable John Wright shows exactly how easy it is to get started. You don't need masses of space to make alcoh...